The beards go where we go!
aN aUDiENCE WiTH BillY giBBONS As the ZZ Top frontman prepares to unleash his second solo album, he reflects on formative years with Roky and Jimi, his love of rap and the perils of bringing livestock on tour
LAST night, ZZ Top rocked Lincoln, Nebraska. Tomorrow they will headline a balloon festival in Ohio. Today they are in geographical limbo “somewhere in the Midwest”. Yet despite his band’s potentially exhausting schedule – ZZ Top appear to have been touring non-stop since 1969 and now claim to be the longest-serving major rock band still comprised of original members – Billy Gibbons’ legendary lust for life is still very much in evidence. In fact, he’s risen early to wrestle gamely with your queries, before getting down to work in a mobile studio currently being assembled in a hotel meeting room. Gibbons is working up a new song for the live iteration of his upcoming solo album, The Big Bad
Blues – a reinstatement of first principles after his previous Afro-Cuban excursion, Perfectamundo.
What is it about the blues that still excites him after all this time? “Well, there’s something to be said about the interesting resonance that exists within this exotic artform,” he offers. “Some people may say, ‘Oh, it’s blues, a simple three-chord thing.’ Well, on one hand, yes it is. But on further inspection, there’s a complex level of sophistication.”
You could say the same about Gibbons himself: on one level, he’s a steadfast purveyor of gloriously basic boogie rock about cars and girls; on another, he’s an erudite and cosmopolitan art lover with a heightened sense of irony and an impressive collection of African tribal artefacts. Both aspects of the Gibbons psyche are fully explored over the next hour or so. “I’ve gotta say thanks for some of these quite thoughtprovoking questions,” says Gibbons afterwards. “You got me lit up!”
What did you learn from watching Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley at close quarters? Mark Anderson, Hastings
The word that would best answer that is ‘feeling’. Anybody can grab an instrument and start slamming three chords, but without the feeling it’s antiseptic. One of the first paying gigs ZZ Top were hired to do was backing Chuck and Bo. We had some fast and fancy footwork to conduct, learning all their material. On the first day, we said, “At what time do we get together to rehearse?” And they laughed and said, “There is no time!” They expected to you know everything. So we dug deep and we became familiar very quickly. Interesting would be one way to look at it. Frightening would be another…
Your first band, The Moving Sidewalks, were contemporaries of the 13th Floor Elevators. What was Roky Erickson like, and what made you abandon psychedelia in favour of the blues? Rory Southland, via email
Roky was an intense guy. His singing was maniacal, out of this world. The Moving Sidewalks and the Elevators shared a house down in Texas. The jug player Tommy Hall was the internal philosopher – he was bringing in mindsets and styles of thinking from far and away, and it all played into some intense messaging through their recorded material. But though the Elevators were considered the premier psychedelic act, they used to do versions of Bo Diddley tunes, Buddy Holly tunes, James Brown songs. That bluesy element was constantly present.
Do you remember any special advice that Jimi Hendrix gave you when you hung out together in 1968? Louis van Empel, Netherlands
Yes. He said, “Learn to play like Jeff Beck!” The takeaway that we got from Jimi was watching him constantly importing and revising and learning. He was on a neverending search, and I found that quite instructive. He took the Stratocaster to places the designers never imagined. Offstage he was soft-spoken and downright shy. But let him loose on the stage and he was a powerful go-getter.
How did you get the recurring role of Angela Montenegro’s rather intimidating father in the TV series Bones? Margaret Pikesley, Cheshire
The programme developer was a gentleman by the name of Hart Hanson, who happens to be a big fan of music. Our first meeting was just a chance to shoot the breeze. After the first encounter he said, “Have you had acting lessons? You’re quite good at doing this. If you don’t mind, let’s make a go of it.” It turned out to be a match made in heaven and my role lasted the entire 12 seasons. I met Angela [Michaela
Conlin]’s real dad. He was quite a charming fellow, and he said, “I’ve been watching you on this programme and I’d probably have preferred to have been more like you when I was raising her!”
Did you have any problems with the animals you brought on your Worldwide Texas Tour in 1976? Ed Baizley, Solihull
If there were any complaints, it was that the animals were treated better than the band or crew. It was an interesting menagerie. We had a trained longhorn steer, a real live American plains buffalo, two black turkey buzzards and a box full of rattlesnakes. It was quite the zoo out there on the road. The only time there was some fussiness was when the buffalo broke loose one afternoon. We were playing in a major league baseball field in Pittsburgh. After about half an hour of chasing this buffalo around the field, we finally calmed him down and got him back into his nice air-conditioned trailer, but the next day there was a baseball game and the players were complaining because the buffalo had stomped in divots in the field.
Is it true you once gave Prince a customised guitar? And have you ever tried to play any Prince songs live? Craig Grant, via email
After a chance encounter with Prince in New York, we remained in touch and exchanged a few instruments. He was fascinated by guitars from the ’50s and I had quite a collection of early Gibsons and Fenders. I was invited to the filming of Purple Rain and he had one of his cloud guitars lying about, a pearlescent yellow. He was like, “Sure, have a go.” As striking as it looked, that crazy instrument was playable. Later, I asked him what he could tell me that would make attempting to learn the opening to “When Doves Cry” easier. And he laughed and said, “You know, it was just one of those expressions that occured in the studio – I don’t know if I could play it again myself!”
Are there any typically English traits you think you’ve inherited from your grandparents? Hannah Greenaway, Harrogate
Certainly… the love of an afternoon tea. I rarely miss the opportunity to fire up the kettle and get a brew going.
How did you acquire your current headgear? Carlo Delafonte, via email
Ah! We were touring Europe and had the luxury of a 14-day break from the schedule. I decided to remain in Vienna and the Warners rep there was a charming young lady who was best friends with the Austrian consul to Cameroon. There was a diplomatic junket organised and as a result I was invited to Cameroon. I showed up in a cowboy hat and boots. As we were standing in the receiving line, the local chief strolled up and said, “I like the hat!” I got the elbow in the ribs to indicate I should give him my hat. I said, “Well, wait a minute, Chief. I’m from Texas, and we’re known to do a little horse-trading.” His people came scampering back with this beautiful, dreadlock-looking hat called an ashetu, so we made the trade.
Paulo, via email I love the fact that “I Gotsta Get Paid” is a cover of a classic Houston rap tune. How did you get into hip-hop?
Back in the mid-’90s, the ZZ Top studio was getting a facelift, so we took refuge up the street at John Moran’s Digital Services, home to some of the greatest hip-hop and R&B artists of the day. Beyoncé got her start there, Scarface and Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, the list goes on. There was Studio Left and Studio Right and in the centre was the lounge, which became a meeting point. There were some lively exchanges on any given afternoon. I was fascinated with how they came up with breakbeats and they wanted to explore the world of bluesy guitars, so it was a rambunctious collision. The friendship has remained intact. I got to know Ice Cube and some of the West Coast guys. Hip-hop is a really intriguing extension of the form.
When did you realise the beards would be a great marketing tool? Martin Praed, Northampton
The beards were a direct result of one single, solitary word: laziness! We’d taken a break from touring and just abandoned the daily chore of trimming the whiskers. After we resumed our day-today business, we’d all sprouted rather impressive briars and brambles, so we just left it alone. It became a trademark. The beards go where we go! How do I feel now that big beards are mainstream? Well, we can walk down the street without being thought of as escapees from a Western film set or a group of religious nuts. It’s a little easier at the shopping mall.
Do you still sleep on hotel floors? Ben Maier, via email
Oh yes. It provides a bit of solidity in the topsy-turvy world of touring. We prefer furnishings that have 90-degree angles. The circular stuff has very little definition. When you step into a nice squared-off room, you’ve got some measure of reference.
The Big Bad Blues is released September 21 by Snakefarm Records
(Below) Gibbons with his ’Top Cameroonian ashetu head gear, 2016